Home / News / Shahan Responds to Washington Post Attack on Justice Stevens

Shahan Responds to Washington Post Attack on Justice Stevens

Justice Stevens was named Oxfordian of the Year in 2009.

Justice Stevens was named Oxfordian of the Year in 2009.

Special thanks to John Shahan, Chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, for allowing us to publish the following letter, which he wrote in response to “The justice doth protest too much, methinks,” an article by Ron Charles in the Washington Post. The Post article chastises former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (pictured to the right) for his interest in the Shakespeare Authorship  Question. Stevens, who voiced his support for the Oxfordian thesis in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article, was named Oxfordian of the Year of 2009 for his continued interest in the subject.

Charles’ article quotes Stratfordian professor Gary Taylor as saying, “Conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays all depend upon a failure to respect the simple distinction between literature, which rightly belongs to everyone, and literary history, which, like legal history, is not a hobby, but a specialist discipline, best debated and adjudicated by experts.”

Charles also quotes Shakspere biographer Stephen Greenblatt as saying that alternative theories of authorship are “in the category of speculations that the moon landing was staged in a Hollywood film studio or that extraterrestrials crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.”
Shahan’s response follows:
Dear Ron,
This is a belated response to your blog post of April 6, titled “The justice doth protest too much, methinks.” I think your piece overlooks some important considerations:
1. Justice Stevens, before going to law school, was an English major who took a particular interest in Shakespeare and his works — an interest he continued later in life.
2. Justice Stevens is hardly the only U.S. Supreme Court justice to question the traditional attribution of the works of William Shakespeare to Mr. Shakspere of Stratford. Other confirmed doubters include Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Harry A. Blackmun, and Lewis F. Powell, Jr. — a total of five, spanning the ideological spectrum. Does it really make sense to think they all belong in the same category as Flat Earthers, as you suggest? Are Supreme Court justices known for their outlandish views? On the contrary, the Supremes have a tradition of “judicial restraint,” including a reluctance to weigh in on issues about which they feel they have insufficient knowledge. In light of this tradition it is unlikely that any of them would have taken a public position on such a controversial question without first considering both sides of the issue.
3. Justices Stevens, Brennan and Blackmun heard oral arguments in a moot court trial of the Shakespeare Authorship Question at American University in 1987. Shakespeare scholars didn’t question then whether the justices were qualified to review evidence on both sides and render a verdict about who had the better case. Brennan ruled at the start (unilaterally) that the burden was on the Oxfordian side to prove both that Shakspere did not write the works and that Oxford did, and both beyond a reasonable doubt and in just one hour. Stratfordians often claim that they ruled in favor of Mr. Shakspere, i.e., that he was the author. In fact, they did no such thing. They gave a Scottish verdict of ‘not proven,” — hardly surprising given how the issue was framed. Stevens and Blackmun, after further study, said that they came to doubt Shakspere’s authorship and favored Oxford. Thus, Stevens’ interest in the question is longstanding, and he is well-informed about both sides of the debate. If he had an initial bias, it was in favor of the Stratford man.
4. The Shakespeare Authorship Debate is about historical evidence, and Shakespeare scholars have no monopoly of expertise in the interpretation of historical evidence. One way to frame the question is “If writing the works were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict Shakspere of having done it beyond a reasonable doubt?” Judges and juries decide such questions all the time. It isn’t true that the evidence is so specialized that only Shakespeare scholars can understand it and that it cannot be made clear to Supreme Court justices. If the evidence is as clear as they claim, why are these English professors, of all people, so unable to make it clear to judges? You quote Gary Taylor thus: “Don’t rely on my opinion of case law, and don’t rely on John Paul Stevens’s opinion about the authorship of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’” This ignores the fact that Supreme Court (and other) judges are not limited to deciding questions of law but also have expertise in, and routinely rule on, questions of fact. Supreme Court justices hear and rule on factual disputes all the time, and nobody tries to claim they are unqualified to do so unless they want to be laughed out of court. Yet Stratfordians presume to make such claims, and then accuse authorship doubters, without evidence, of being motivated by ‘snobbery.’ Who are the real snobs here? What’s so special about Shakespeare scholars that they, and they alone, should be exempt from outside scrutiny? What about the fact that many of them are doubters?
5. Stratfordians themselves have placed the debate in a legal context by publishing the book “Shakespeare Beyond Doubt,” which purports to present definitive evidence. The problem is that it doesn’t make the case, as any thinking person who reads it can easily see. They don’t even address the major reasons for doubting the authorship. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth, recently came out as an authorship heretic and said that reading this book made him all the more so. Not a good sign if this is supposed to be the definitive book on the subject. In response, Alexander Waugh (grandson of novelist Evelyn Waugh and a noted author in his own right) and I co-edited Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?: Exposing an Industry in Denial. Since the two books have identical main titles, they appear together at Amazon. That’s good for us because the ratings, reviews and sales rankings all favor ours. If you genuinely wish to understand this issue, you should be sure to read both of them. At the very least, you should read our list of “Twenty-one Good Reasons to Doubt that Mr. Shakspere Was ‘Shakespeare,” which I’ve copied below for your convenience.
6. Shakespeare scholars, unlike Supreme Court justices, have a major conflict of interest in addressing the authorship issue: their reputations and careers are at stake. Any scholar who deviates from orthodoxy is subject to vicious attacks by the orthodox establishment — especially by the ‘guardians of orthodoxy’ at Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratford, as the second-largest tourist destination in England, after London, has a huge financial interest in the status quo and in continuing to perpetrate a blatant fraud. Not one attraction at its “Disneyland for Shakespeare” theme park is what it claims to be: not the “birthplace;” not “Anne Hathaway’s Cottage;” not “Mary Arden’s Farm.” My organization challenged the Birthplace Trust to a mock trial, offering to donate ₤40,000 to them if they prove Shakspere was the author. They’ve refused to participate. It makes no sense to think they’d refuse to snap up ₤40,000 for proving the basic premise of their existence, and exposing us as the fools they say we are, if they could.
7. You refer to Professor Greenblatt’s so-called biography, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, as if it were a well-regarded biography of the Bard. It isn’t. Even among orthodox Shakespeare scholars it has come in for a great deal of criticism. Rather than a factual biography, Greenblatt calls it a work of ‘imagination.’ The first sentence begins “Let us imagine. . .” Rather than Greenblatt, you should read The Truth About William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies, by David Ellis, Professor of English at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Without addressing the authorship issue, the book exposes the falsity of Shakespeare biography. Shakespeare biographers typically ignore accepted standards. Also see Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, by Diana Price. It shows that Shakspere of Stratford is unique in being the only alleged writer of the period who left no literary paper trail comparable to what is available for other writers.
8. You offer one factual claim, and it is false. You quote Stephen Greenblatt as saying that “William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a celebrity in his own time.” In fact, no contemporaneous document shows that Shakspere was recognized as the author Shakespeare during his lifetime, and nothing shows he was ever a celebrity. During his lifetime, none of those who referred to the author Shakespeare ever suggested that they knew him personally, or that they thought of him as the Stratford man. Nothing shows that anyone ever saw Shakspere of Stratford act in any Shakespearean play. To this day, we do not know any role he ever played in any play on any date. Contrary to what people often believe, no documentary evidence shows that either Queen Elizabeth I, or King James I, ever met Shakespeare or spoke or wrote his name. Most telling of all, when Shakspere died in 1616, nobody took any notice. Nothing shows that anyone made the slightest reference to the passing of this alleged celebrity — none of his fellow writers; none of his fellow actors; none of the printers who published the plays. This is in stark contrast to the outpourings for other writers of the time. The first document to suggest, ambiguously, that Mr. Shakspere had been the author William Shakespeare appeared more than seven years after he died: the First Folio. You should ask Professor Greenblatt to specify the evidence that supports his claim. And next time you should request evidence up front, rather than just taking his word.
9. You should also be aware that Greenblatt, after writing Will in the World, slipped up in an interview with the editor of Harvard Magazine, committing an “act of candor,” as they’re called, admitting that “the process of writing the book . . . has made me respect that preposterous fantasy, if I may say so, rather more than when I began . . . because I have now taken several years of hard work and 40 years of serious academic training to grapple with the difficulty of making the connections meaningful and compelling between the life of this writer and the works that he produced.” Doesn’t sound to me like an argument that Justice Stevens’ views belong “in the category of speculations that the moon landing was staged in a Hollywood film studio or that extraterrestrials crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.” Whether or not Greenblatt has any doubts about the authorship himself (I assume not), he certainly put his finger on a key reason why so many highly credible people, past and present, have had doubts — “the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject [the works] and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record [for Wm. Shakspere of Stratford],” as Sam Schoenbaum, the leading Shakespeare scholar of his generation, put it. Isn’t it interesting that both Schoenbaum and Greenblatt recognize this major problem?
(BTW, since you call us conspiracy theorists, please see Web of Conspiracy: A Guide to Conspiracy Theory Sites on the Internet by James Broderick and Darren Miller. Broderick, an associate professor of English and Journalism at New Jersey City University, says the authorship issue is the one legitimate conspiracy theory they found.)
10. Orthodox Shakespeare scholars deliberately promote a false negative stereotype of doubters. They do this to stigmatize and suppress the issue, out of self-interest. Authorship doubters are a much more impressive group than they would have you believe, as seen in the list of 20 past doubters in the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt. Over 2,900 people have signed it — over 1,000 with advance degrees and 500 current or former college/university faculty members. Orthodox scholars have yet to rebut it. Nearly 78% of signatories are college graduates, representing virtually every academic field. But the field that’s most heavily represented is English Literature (407, 14%). It therefore seems that even significant numbers of their own students are unpersuaded by the “expertise” of orthodox Shakespeare scholars, for what that’s worth to you. The true extent of the doubts is difficult to gauge due to Stratfordians’ success in suppressing the issue. With their ad hominem attacks, they’ve made it a taboo subject. Declaration signatories are just the tip of the iceberg — those with the courage to take a public stand despite the ridicule of the orthodox, with assistance from the media.
Finally, I would point out that your piece is devoted almost entirely to supporting “arguments from authority” by the orthodox establishment, not with empirical evidence. That is a very lazy approach to the issue, and unworthy of someone in your position with a newspaper of the importance of the Washington Post. You should do better. Rather than deferring to authority, you should read up on the issue so you understand it yourself. You might even come to understand why Stevens finds it fascinating. The Declaration would be a good place to start. It can be read in twenty minutes. The list of twenty-one good reasons to doubt, shown below, can be read in even less.
Best wishes,
John M. Shahan, Chairman & CEO
Shakespeare Authorship Coalition
Twenty-one Good Reasons to Doubt that Mr. Shakspere was “Shakespeare” (from the book Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, Shahan and Waugh, eds.)

1. People often think Shakspere claimed to have written the works. No such record exists. Nor did any family member or descendant ever claim that he was the author Shakespeare. (Not that either of his daughters would have left such a record, since neither could write.) No contemporary indicated that they thought of him as the author until long after he died. At least ten people who knew of both Shakspere and the author never connected the two.

2. During the lifetime of William of Stratford (1564-1616), nobody ever claimed to have met the poet-dramatist Shakespeare. A few people indicated at the time that they thought the name was a pseudonym. Orthodox scholars ignore the possibility of a pen name and treat every occurrence of the name Shakespeare as a reference to Mr. Shakspere, but no reference to the author specifically identified Shakspere of Stratford during his lifetime.

3. Contrary to the popular perception that Shakespeare became a prominent public figure, no record shows that he ever addressed the public directly (after his first two dedications) and none shows that either Elizabeth I, or James I, ever met him, or mentioned his name. As a professional actor, we do not know any role he ever played in any play on any date. Nor does any contemporary record say that anyone ever saw him act in any of his plays.

4. Not one play, not one poem, not even a letter in Shakspere’s hand has ever been found. Very few authorial manuscripts of plays or poems from the period survive, but no letters? Mr. Shakspere divided his time between London and Stratford—a situation conducive to correspondence. We have letters for most other major writers of the period, and even for some lesser ones. How is it that not one survived for the most prolific writer of them all?

5. William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon never spelled his name “Shakespeare” in his life, and his name also was probably not pronounced the same as the author’s name. There is a clear, consistent difference between the spelling of the author’s name on the works and the spellings of Mr. Shakspere’s family name in the Stratford church records. Even the orthodox used to make the distinction, but now pretend the names are the same.

6. The only writings said to be in Shakspere’s hand are six shaky, inconsistent signatures on legal documents. If these signatures are his, they reveal that he experienced difficulty signing his name. Some experts doubt they are his and say they were done by law clerks. No two are spelled the same way, and some say no two letters are formed the same way. His signatures compare badly with those of known writers and most actors at the period.

7. Nobody knows how Mr. Shakspere acquired the vast knowledge found in the works. The range would be remarkable for any man, let alone someone who never traveled or went to university. Not that a commoner, even in the rigid caste system of Elizabethan England, could not have managed to do it somehow, but how could it have happened without leaving a single trace? All we get from traditional biographers is speculation.

8. Orthodox scholars, unable to account for how the author acquired his knowledge, fall back on the idea that he was a “genius,” and attribute it to his exceptional “imagination.” But even a genius must acquire knowledge and cannot do it by simply imagining things. Academic experts on geniuses see little reason to think that Mr. Shakspere was a genius.

9. The orthodox claim that we know more about Shakspere than other writers of his time. The problem is not how much we know, but what we know. Over 70 documents relate to him, but all are non-literary—church records, business dealings, lawsuits. It is incredible to think all of these records survived, but all relating to his alleged literary career are lost.

10. The orthodox claim that the plays and poems prove Shakespeare was from Stratford. If he was born and raised in Stratford until he was well over twenty-one, he would have had a Warwickshire accent and dialect. Yet these are both totally absent from the works. The works use neither the language, nor the history, nor the geography of Warwickshire.

11. Mr. Shakspere was a money-conscious businessman who repeatedly sued over small amounts of money. Yet he never sued over any pirated edition of his alleged plays, and nothing shows that the author was ever paid to write, or that he ever published any play.

12. Mr. Shakspere had a hard time getting approval for his application for a coat of arms. This makes little sense if he was the author of Venus and Adonis and had a noble patron. Warwickshire poet Michael Drayton, for example, had no trouble getting a coat of arms.

13.  Shakespeare, the poet, wrote no commendatory verse to anyone, and no one wrote any to him until long after Mr. Shakspere died in 1616. The mutual silence is very odd, especially for a playwright who is said to have actively collaborated with other writers.

14. Allegedly a prominent playwright under James I, he was seldom present in London. Never in his career did he own a home in London or move his family there. Early in the reign of James I, records place him in Stratford while the plays were performed at court.

15. Mr. Shakspere’s detailed will contains nothing that suggests he was any sort of writer —no books, plays, poems, letters, writing materials, or intellectual property of any kind. Nothing about it suggests in any way that this was a man who lived an intellectual life.

16. When Will Shakspere died in 1616, no one seemed to notice. Not so much as a letter refers to the author’s passing. If he were Shakespeare, he would have been memorialized by his literary peers. Even the fellow actors mentioned in his will had no known reaction.

17. The First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published seven years after Shakspere died, and the monument erected in the Stratford church about the same time, appear to be part of a deception to give the impression that Shakspere had been the author of the plays. Supporting evidence for this claim is in Chapters 10-12 of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?: Exposing an Industry in Denial.

18. Mr. Shakspere was supposedly a full-time actor, performing in different plays several times a week, outdoors in English weather and on annual extended tours to the provinces. He was a theater shareholder, responsible for the business. He maintained two households three days’ apart, commuting over bad Elizabethan roads. Yet he is also supposed to have written thirty-seven plays, nearly all of them requiring extensive research often in foreign languages. There is no other example, then or since, of a still-working actor writing plays.

19. If the evidence were really as clear as orthodox scholars claim, they would just make it clear. Instead they engage in personal attacks against anyone who disagrees with them. They promote a false stereotype of doubters, and this calls their credibility into question. These tactics of traditional scholars, and especially of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, are intended to stigmatize and suppress the authorship issue and make it a taboo subject. The SBT has a clear conflict of interest and no basis to claim to be neutral and objective.

20. By claiming that it is “beyond doubt” that Shakspere of Stratford wrote the works of Shakespeare, the SBT implies that the issue has now been adjudicated and resolved; but if they had to prove their case beyond doubt in an impartial forum, they could not do so. No impartial body has ever ruled “beyond doubt” that Will Shakspere was Shakespeare.

21. A petition from Cuthbert Burbage to the Lord Chamberlain, Philip Herbert, provides strong evidence that William of Stratford was known as a player, but not as a playwright.

This requires some explanation. In 1635, Cuthbert Burbage, brother of the famous actor Richard Burbage, had to prepare a petition to the Lord Chamberlain, then Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, in a legal case. Richard and Cuthbert Burbage were the founder-investors in the Globe Theatre in 1599, and William Shakspere was a sharer. So Cuthbert knew Shakspere, and surely knew the role he played in the acting company. In the petition, Cuthbert names those who risked their money by investing in the Globe, referring to “Shakspere,” and “Shakspeare,” as one of several “deserving men” and also as one of several “men players.” These terms don’t make it sound like Cuthbert thought of him as the poet-playwright Shakespeare, just another member of the acting company.

But perhaps most important is the two spellings of the name, both without a medial “e.” By 1635, after the publication of the first two Folios, the name “Shakespeare” was well known, and would always have been spelled that way in print, as Burbage surely knew. Furthermore, the man to whom he was writing—the Lord Chamberlain, Philip Herbert—was one of the two dedicatees, with his brother William, of the First and Second Folios. If Burbage knew that the “deserving man” and “man player” was also their playwright, one would expect that he would have (1) spelled his name “Shakespeare,” and (2) made some reference to this Shakespeare being the one whose plays had been published in the First Folio (1623), and the Second Folio (1632), both dedicated to Philip and his brother. This would have greatly strengthened the force of his petition. The fact that he did not do so suggests that he knew his fellow actor-sharer was not the author William Shakespeare.

posted May 26, 2014

Stay Informed
Join our FREE Email list to get the latest news on the Shakespeare authorship controversy
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.